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THE SAFETY ZONE | Spotlight

Deadly Pranks

Fake distress calls to the Coast Guard can--and have--caused tragedy.

September 18, 2000|ALEX KATZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On July 21, a Coast Guard helicopter arrived off the Santa Barbara coast just in time to rescue an 80-year-old man who had fallen overboard and was fighting to keep his head above the waves.

It was a close call, but it didn't have to be. The helicopter would have arrived much sooner if it hadn't been responding to another mayday call--one that Coast Guard officials believe was a hoax.

"The aircraft did not get there as fast as they would have if they weren't wasting time," said Coast Guard Lt. Commander Melissa Bert. "It was just miraculous that he survived."

Hoaxes are a surprisingly large problem for Coast Guard stations around the country.

For the local Coast Guard headquarters in Long Beach, which patrols south to San Clemente and north to above Morro Bay, about 25% of all calls for help turn out to be phony or unsubstantiated.

The station responds to several hundred calls for help each year. So far this year, more than 130 mayday calls have been false alarms--no boats or people were ever found to be in distress.

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The problem causes a ripple effect.

In Orange County, the Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol responds to many of the same mayday calls that the Coast Guard does.

"It's very frustrating," said Sgt. Jim Thomas. False maydays "take a lot of manpower, time and resources away from a call that is legitimate."

Private and commercial boaters worth their salt will monitor the emergency radio frequency and rush to help a boat in distress, Thomas said.

"It's pretty much a rule of thumb that a mayday call takes priority over anything you might be doing," he said. "That's the etiquette of the sea: You drop what you're doing and respond to that location."

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Danny Phee said many phony calls come from children playing with radios. As for adults, "I don't know the psychological reasons behind why they do it," he said.

Nationwide, the Coast Guard spends $6 million per year responding to calls for help that are never confirmed. Coast Guard officials say many of those calls are hoaxes.

Locally, about $1 million is spent every year on responding to unconfirmed maydays.

"Some of them are truly hoaxes because we hear people laughing, or there's no noise in the background so you know they're not underway in a boat," said Bert, who works at the Coast Guard's Long Beach station.

Still, "we always call back and take it seriously," she said. "You just never know. Sometimes [mayday] is the last word that somebody says, and that's it."

The Coast Guard responds to every distress call, by either boat or helicopter or both, using radio equipment to find the general location of the caller, officials said.

Operating a helicopter costs about $3,000 per hour, a large patrol boat, about $1,500 per hour, Bert said.

Hoax mayday callers can also cause real harm.

In 1990, a fishing boat called the "SoleMar" was sinking off Fairhaven, Mass., and called the Coast Guard for help. The Coast Guard had just received a false mayday call from the same area and assumed that the call from the fishing boat was also fake, Bert said. No rescue was launched, and two people on the fishing boat drowned, she said.

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The case prompted the federal government to stiffen the penalties for making a false mayday call, Bert said. The crime is punishable by up to six years in jail and a $250,000 fine, Coast Guard officials said.

Although a few people around the country have been prosecuted for making false mayday calls, Coast Guard and sheriff's officials doubt that any hoax callers have ever been caught in Southern California.

For five days this month, the local Coast Guard station joined with other federal authorities on a sting operation to catch hoax mayday callers. But no mayday calls came in during the operation, Phee said.

"I wouldn't say it's our main problem, but you can put it this way: It's definitely our most frustrating problem," Phee said.

"Can you imagine [a Coast Guard helicopter crew] falling out of the sky while doing a hoax mayday call? . . . Someday that'll happen. We'll be chasing ghosts, and someone will die because of it."

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